Three members of a Winnipeg family accused of staging a hate crime at their now-defunct River Heights restaurant have every intention of returning to Winnipeg for trial once COVID-19 restrictions are reduced, their lawyers say.
"They maintain their innocence and want their day in court," said Phil Cramer, lawyer for Maxim Berent, who, along with his father Alexander and mother Oxana Berent, are facing charges of public mischief after alleging their Corydon Avenue restaurant, BerMax Caffé + Bistro, had been the target of four anti-Semitic attacks last year.
The three accused relocated to Los Angeles in January and were set to stand trial in Winnipeg, beginning Oct. 13.
Last week, a judge, in the expectation the three accused would not arrive in Winnipeg for trial, issued warrants for their arrest.
Defence lawyers said Tuesday they agreed to the warrants, which would allow the three accused to return to Winnipeg at a later date, turn themselves in to police, and then be released on a promise to appear in court.
"This was all by agreement (with the Crown)," said Michael Lazar, Oxana Berent’s lawyer, adding the three accused have had an active role in trial discussions since their move to California.
"If you are just going to abscond and blow the whole thing off, you don’t make efforts to try and make other arrangements, you just disappear," Lazar said.
“If you are just going to abscond and blow the whole thing off, you don’t make efforts to try and make other arrangements, you just disappear." — Michael Lazar, Oxana Berent’s lawyer
Lazar said the family was given court approval to relocate to Los Angeles in January, before the pandemic, after arguing they had no financial supports in Winnipeg and were being ostracized by the religious community.
In Los Angeles, the family found support with a local Jewish social agency, Lazar said.
"And then COVID came along, and we indicated to them that, obviously now coming from the States, you have to isolate for two weeks when you get back," Lazar said.
The family’s efforts to find a place to stay were fruitless, and they didn’t have the money to pay for two weeks in a hotel, Lazar said.
Defence lawyers filed a motion to allow the trial to proceed with the three accused participating via video from Los Angeles, but it was dismissed.
"I think part of the issue is it was going to be a lengthy trial," Lazar said. "There have been a number of cases during COVID where people have done this, but this was a much longer, more complicated trial, there was video evidence, surveillance, and the judge was concerned that (the accused) wouldn’t be able to see it."
Then last week, defence lawyers filed a motion to adjourn the trial, but a judge rejected it because no fixed date could be assigned.
It was after that when Crown and defence lawyers agreed to cancel the trial and issue the arrest warrants, including an agreement from the Crown that the three accused would not be charged with failing to appear in court upon their return to Winnipeg.
"It was clear they couldn’t physically come back right now," Lazar said. "Quarantine was the big issue.
"This was actually a fairly co-operative effort between the Crown and defence lawyers to try and deal with this," he said. "We are dealing with unusual situations due to COVID right now and it requires a fair degree of creativity sometimes."
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.